SANA'A // President Ali Abdullah Saleh stood defiant among thousands of his supporters yesterday as demonstrations continued across Yemen demanding his removal.
Ahead of the usual mass Friday gatherings from both sides, Yemen's tribal and religious leaders issued a statement urging security forces to defect and calling for the president to go.
But Mr Saleh, who has been in power for 33 years, used a speech near the presidential palace to call on the opposition to return to talks.
"We call on the opposition to consult their consciences and come to dialogue and reach an agreement for security and stability of the country," Mr Saleh said on the so-called "Friday of Dialogue".
"These popular masses - these millions - massed in this square have come to say 'yes' to constitutional legitimacy," he said.
"These are the same masses who said 'yes' to Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2006 [elections] as president of the republic."
He said the crowds carrying his picture and calling for him to stay were "a clear message to the people inside and outside the country.".
His speech came as GCC mediators offered Mr Saleh and the opposition an end to the crisis in Yemen, in which more than 125 protesters have been killed since February 11. The GCC proposal calls for Mr Saleh to transfer power to his deputy and for the creation of an opposition-led national unity government.
"This is a referendum on my constitutional legitimacy," said Mr Saleh, 69, whose party has said he should stay in power until his seven-year term runs out in 2013.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people protested against Mr Saleh across the country - including in Sana'a, Taiz, Hudaida and Ibb in what they dubbed a "Friday of Determination". Eight people were wounded in Taiz, which was the scene of the biggest anti-Saleh protests yesterday.
According to witnesses, Saleh supporters fired on protesters who came from outside the city to join the demonstrations at Freedom Square. Tens of thousands have camped out for more than two months at the square.
After the shooting, pro-democracy protesters hurled stones and shoes at the convoy of Rashad al Alimi, the deputy prime minister who was organising a pro-Saleh demonstration, according to witnesses.
In the capital, hundreds of thousands rallied at al Tagheer square in front of Sana'a University to demand his immediate removal. The protesters chanted: "Leave. No solution but your departure."
The two rival rallies in Sana'a went without any reported clashes.
Late on Thursday, Yemen's tribal and religious leaders issued a statement after a meeting calling on the security forces to defect to the protesters and called for the "quick" removal of Mr Saleh.
The president "must respond to the demands of the peaceful revolt of the youth, starting with his immediate departure and that of all his aides in the military and security apparatuses," the statement said.
The meeting was led by the chief of the Hashed tribe, the same tribe as Mr Saleh's family. It included most members of the Ulema Council of Islamic leaders in Yemen.
Unless the president stepped down "quickly", the participants would "head up the demonstrations and sit-ins in all the provinces", the leaders said.
They refused to accept any GCC mediation plan unless it clearly states when Mr Saleh must step down, and rejected a GCC proposal to give immunity to Mr Saleh and his family members.
The tribal chiefs and clerics condemned the misuse of public money on pro-Saleh protests, and denounced the distribution of weapons in cities and neighbourhoods to government supporters.
They also condemned the formation of armed militias, calling for Yemen's tribes to take an oath promising not to be dragged into violence each other.
The statement also promised that the new government would prioritise security measures to combat terrorism.
"The peaceful change revolution in Yemen will be a safety valve for the security at the local, regional and international levels and it will work with the international community to dry up the sources of terrorism wherever they exist."